Ewood Park has seen it all before - long, long ago

THE CHAMPIONS OF 1914: The recipe for success is almost exactly the same as it was before the First World War, discovers Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
Europe beckons for Alan Shearer, Colin Hendry and company, as it did for the last Blackburn Rovers team to win the championship. During the summer of 1914, however, the talk at Ewood Park was of the first rumblings of the Great War rather than footballing battles to come on foreign fields.

In August, as the hostilities developed a murderous impetus, the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph pictured "The Rovers in Training". Even the staunchest supporter no doubt thumbed quickly past to the two-page spread announcing: "All Europe at War".

One of the newly crowned heroes in halved shirts, Eddie Latheron, was to be killed in France three years later by a German shell. Some of his Blackburn colleagues sacrificed merely the best years of their careers. For the club, who had just finished first for the second time in three seasons, the chance to dominate the English game would not come again until the century was almost over.

The Blackburn Rovers (reports invariably used the definite article) were less than 40 years young when the 1913/14 season opened. They had an FA Cup tradition (a song honouring their first success began: "All hail ye gallant Rover lads!/Etonians thought you were but cads"), but it belonged to a distant age by the time their championship sides took shape.

Taking the Kenny Dalglish role - though the concept of the manager was some way off and his title was secretary - was one R B Middleton. An ex-teacher from Yorkshire, he proved a shrewd investor of the sums raised by Lawrence Cotton, a chairman with Jack Walker's ambitions if not quite his resources.

Cotton's brass came from textiles rather than steel, but in an age when four-figure transfers were as rare as £4m deals are now, he sanctioned an outlay of £12,000 over eight years. He also presided over the rebuilding of Ewood between 1912 and '14, taking its capacity to 70,000 at a cost of £33,000. The new structures survived until the all-seated citadel emerged in the 1990s.

Comparisons in personnel also show similarities. The Shearer of his era was Danny Shea, an inside-right from West Ham whose £2,000 price-tag raised eyebrows until he amassed 28 goals in 36 games on the way to the title. And the defensive pivot, Percy Smith, was a converted centre-forward, just like Hendry.

During the run-in, a massive £2,500 went on securing Hearts' Percy Dawson, who complemented Shea as Chris Sutton does Shearer. Yet the heartbeat of Middleton's team was a Blackburn man, Bob Crompton, who served for half a century as full-back, captain, manager and director.

In his Official Encyclopaedia of the club, Mike Jackman reveals him as anything but a typical footballer of his time. Crompton was not only a partner in a plumbing firm, but he actually owned a car. He died in 1941 after watching a victory over Burnley; Rovers fans might feel there are worse ways to go.

"Bornla" aside, there were derbies galore in 1913/14, with Preston, Oldham, Bolton, Bradford City and the Manchester clubs in the First Division. The Rovers made a storming start, the first five games ending with a 100 per cent record and 20 goals.

Mid-season produced only five wins in 16 matches, but Blackburn regained momentum to ease home seven points clear of Aston Villa. With two points for a win, they finished with 51 from 38 fixtures, which translates into 71 points under today's system. Remarkably, Dalglish's men topped that figure after 32 games.

Of the 21 players used by the Rovers of 1914, eight made more than 30 appearances, two narrowly missed doing so, and eight were in single figures. The 21 deployed this time include nine with over 30 starts and seven with fewer than 10. A further coincidence lies in Middleton's failure to deliver a win in either match with lowly Manchester United, albeit in uncontroversial circumstances.

One striking difference between the campaigns lies in the area of press coverage. Eighty-one years ago, after a 3-2 defeat of Bolton had all but clinched Blackburn's title, the papers seemed unmoved by the event.

The Northern Daily Telegraph, for example, led on scuffles in Hyde Park at a Unionist rally against "the coercion of Ulster by arms". Another report told of missionaries "butchered by blacks" in Australia. Few items in its densely-packed pages received less space than the Rovers' impending triumph.

A third of the way down an inside page - buried below speculation about Preston's survival prospects - the columnist "Quilp" stuck his neck on the line: "Dare I hail the Rovers as the champions? It may seem a risky thing to do, but I think their task is almost accomplished now."

Five days later, after a draw at Newcastle confirmed it, the headline "Hail to the Champions" was as small as any in the paper. And while the achievement was acknowledged in the non-sporting pages, the writer was hardly sending out for Eccles cakes and ale.

Having offered the Rovers "heartiest congratulations", the piece continued in curmudgeonly vein: "For purely sentimental reasons there are many who would rather the club had resumed their striking success of former years in the English Cup, but even they will recognise that the winning of the blue riband of the greatest league in the kingdom, which calls for long and fairly continuous form of a high character, is, after all, the greatest test of merit."

The Weekly Telegraph, in which a story about "Labour Party militants bent on silencing Mr Keir Hardie" illustrates how some things never change, had a detailed account of the decisive game. "Novocastrian" made no mention of jubilant players or supporters, civic receptions or trophy presentations.

Curiously, when Burnley won the Cup, weeks later, this Blackburn paper showed the cloth-capped masses straining to glimpse the silver.

The following season the Rovers came a creditable third. With the spread of a gory conflict that had started in Bosnia, by another unhappy coincidence, sporting glory seemed the most trivial pursuit.

1914 LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP

P W D L F A Pts

Blackburn 38 20 11 7 78 42 51

Aston Villa 38 19 6 13 65 50 44

Oldham 38 17 9 12 55 45 43

Middlesbro 38 19 5 14 77 60 43

WBA 38 15 13 10 46 42 43

Bolton 38 16 10 12 65 52 42

Sunderland 38 17 6 15 63 52 40

Chelsea 38 16 7 15 46 55 39

Bradford City 38 12 14 12 40 40 38

Sheffield Utd 38 16 5 17 63 60 37

Newcastle 38 13 11 14 39 48 37

Burnley 38 12 12 14 61 53 36

Man City 38 14 8 16 51 53 36

Man Utd 38 15 6 17 52 62 36

Everton 38 12 11 15 46 55 35

Liverpool 38 14 7 17 46 62 35

Tottenham 38 12 10 16 50 62 34

Sheff Wed 38 13 8 17 53 70 34

Preston 38 12 6 20 52 69 30

Derby 38 8 11 19 55 71 27

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